Everyone wants their train to arrive in time. Countless passenger surveys have revealed it, and it just makes sense. Now the rail industry is changing the way it measures lateness, to make the statistics more reliable and reflect the true situation.
But how late is late? If a train is just one minute late, does it matter? Does anyone notice?
Of course, it does matter. If a train that is just one minute late isn’t really late, what about one that is two minutes behind schedule? Or three? Where do you draw the line?
That’s just the argument that both the industry and passenger groups have been having.
Until now, both government and the industry have been using the Public Performance Measure (PPM) to monitor lateness. This defines a local, regional or commuter train as being late if it arrives five minutes behind schedule at its final destination. For a long-distance train, the cut-off figure is ten minutes.
PPM was easy to measure. Statisticians just had to monitor arrival time at one station, the final one. But it did lead to argument and to manipulation.
For example, a long-distance train could run 15 minutes late at every station along its route, speed up over the last leg into, say, London, arrive nine minutes behind time at its destination and still be classified as being ‘on time’.
Also, if a train was delayed and so would be out of sequence and end up behind a later-running train, it was possible for the train operator to deliberately delay the front train, putting the second back in front, and, so long as both were under ten minutes late, the statistics would show nothing.
Once a train became late, and would be classified as such, it didn’t matter if it got even later. It could therefore be ‘sacrificed’ to keep the rest of the schedule on time.
All of this both upset passengers, who just wanted their train to be on time, and gave great ammunition to passenger groups, politicians and other interested parties to complain about the state of the railways.
Even with all these loopholes, the railway industry still couldn’t get its trains running to timetable. The government target was to achieve a PPM of 92.5 per cent by the end of March 2019. In the recent Period 5 (21 July to 17 August 2019), the national average was 84.6 per cent, down from 85 per cent the year before, while the annual moving average was 87.3 per cent. So, one train in eight would be late at its destination by over five or 10 minutes.
Not a good performance, even with the flaws in the statistical approach.
The Office of Rail and Road (ORR), which measures these statistics, has now released the first of its ‘On Time’ figures. This measures the punctuality of trains at departure from the origin, arrival at the final destination and arrival at each intermediate station stop where recorded. Train punctuality is currently recorded at around 90 per cent of all station stops, a figure which is expected to increase over time.
Other figures will also be quoted. ‘Time to 3’ will be the number of trains that were either early, on time or up to three minutes late, while ‘Time to 15’ includes all of those plus trains that were under 15 minutes late. But the headline figure will be the ‘’On Time’ figure, which is all trains that were either early or less than one minute late (up to 59 seconds).
In the year to June 2019, that figure was 64.7 per cent. Time to 3 was 83.9 per cent, Time to 15 was 98.4 per cent. 2.8 per cent were cancelled.
The On Time figure is 2.5 per cent up on a year previously, while cancellations were 0.1 per cent down.
While 64.7 per cent is nothing to celebrate, the new figures do at least give a better understanding of what is actually happening on the railway.
Network Rail also publishes figures explaining why trains are over three minutes late. This could be caused by an infrastructure failure, a train failure, an operational complication or by an external event. For regulatory reasons, Network Rail is assigned responsibility for delays caused by external factors such as weather, trespass, vandalism, cable theft and fatalities.
ORR head of information and analysis Lyndsey Melbourne said: “We are publishing these new measures of punctuality and reliability to aid transparency of train performance and to help the industry focus on exactly where problems are arising and therefore direct their efforts on finding a solution – so passengers will benefit as solutions are found more quickly and more trains arrive on time.”
Grant Shapps, Secretary of State for Transport, commented on the new reporting method: “Commuters just want their trains to run on time and that’s my first priority. New statistics published today will stop masking whether trains are really on time.
“I believe this is a step in the right direction, providing more accountability and transparency to help hold operators to account, but much more needs to be done to get performance to where it should be.
“Last week I met with the heads of rail companies and industry leaders, where I set out the pressing need for concrete action to deliver improvements in the short, medium and long term. What was clear was the joint passion and drive of both government and rail industry to create a railway where the focus was on every minute for passengers.
“This won’t be instant, but the Williams Review, published this Autumn, has the right ideas: clearer accountability, greater local control focused on passengers and performance.”
The railway industry is generally behind the adoption of this new method of gathering data and declaring punctuality information.
Network Rail welcomed the move to a more accurate way of reporting performance information, saying that this will make the company more transparent and accountable to passengers and will continue to drive up reliability and punctuality.
Andrew Haines, Network Rail chief executive, added: “Passengers tell us punctuality is the most important thing for them, which is why, since joining Network Rail, I have restructured the company to make this the key focus.
“We’re making progress, as today’s figures show, but we know there is much more to do and together as an industry we won’t stop until passengers get the reliable railway they deserve.
“We have just completed the first phase of an organisational restructure that gives more responsibility to our regions and puts local needs at the heart of decisions.”
Anthony Smith, chief executive of the independent watchdog Transport Focus, agreed with Andrew Haines’ assessment of what passengers view as important: “Passengers’ biggest priority for their train service is punctuality – they need to be able to rely on getting to work, home, or crucial appointments at the expected time. Clearly one-third of trains running late is not acceptable.
“Transport Focus welcomes the industry heeding its call for the figures to reflect actual arrival times rather than allowing trains up to ten minutes late to count as ‘on time’. This will help rebuild trust in the railway. But proper reporting isn’t enough on its own, so we are pleased to see this renewed focus on driving up punctuality.
“It’s good to see a year-on-year improvement, but clearly there is a long way to go. In the meantime, we urge passengers to continue to claim Delay Repay every time they are delayed.”
The Campaign for Better Transport is a charitable trust that operates in England and Wales and campaigns to bring sustainable transport to all and ensure solutions are delivered that improve the wellbeing of communities, quality of life and the environment.
Chief executive Darren Shirley commented: “Train services should match the timetable and when there are delays it should be simple for passengers to get compensation. This is vital to restoring public confidence in rail and should be central to the Government’s ongoing Rail Review.”